My parents decided not to replace our bedroom carpet until my sister and I had stopped spitting up and pissing in corners.
The carpet was an ugly grey and black, not the kind of thing you usually see in a nursery. It was still there, rubbed down to its ropes, when I left Belfast to go to university. It was still there when we cleared the house out after my dad died. I was 51 that year and I want to you know that I haven’t thrown up or wet myself for ages.
Our bedroom was under the eaves of the 1950s bungalow, a room with walls and floors constructed from chipboard and masking tape by my father in the early 1960s. This description doesn’t do credit to the artistry of the design. The room was an ingenious use of space and managed to be sound and safe while still being light, architectural and original, as though rendered in origami. My father also built the stairs, all open-plan and wood and steel, like something from a mid-century design bible. In 45 years though, my father never quite got to the punch list items on this project. Although he was an electrical engineer, the power supply was ramshackle to say the least.
At the time we sold the house in 2011, all the lights in our bedroom were still powered by a plug in the hall on the main floor of the house, a flight of stairs below our eyrie. At first my parents kept it that way because of the power it gave them. If we didn’t settle, or refused to stay in bed with the lights off, they wrenched the downstairs plug from its socket and heard us squeal in the sudden darkness. Swift and terrible punishment and they didn’t even have to climb the stairs.
The room in the roof space became stifling hot in summer. I, plagued by allergies, used to lie on my single bed and sweat while my brother and sister spent the long holiday outside playing in the grass. Even without the excuse of itchy eyes and a streaming nose I would have chosen to stay inside and read. My bedside bookshelf was home to Heidi and the Railway Children, Five Children and It, and of course Anne of Green Gables, the girl who made it ok to be redheaded and to like long words.
The door to the bedroom was never equipped with a handle, much less a lock. Ours was the only room on this level and so at first it mattered little that we couldn’t close the door that led to the small landing at the top of the stairs. It mattered the day I brought a boyfriend home. I was back from university for the summer and my love and I had gone out for lunch in Belfast and came home tasting of heat and white wine and strawberries. We went to bed and he, unfamiliar with the eccentricities of our upstairs arrangements, closed the door behind him. Our only exertion that hot and steamy afternoon was to try to wrench the door back open before my father came home from work at 5:15pm and before our air supply ran out. There was only one small window in the bedroom, and the door needed to be open to allow air to circulate from the rest of the house. We made it, just, before he died of dehydration and I died of shame.
The lack of a functioning door meant Anne and I could hear everything that happened down below. I’d turn up in the living room with a sore tummy or needing a glass of water when I heard the theme tune for Dr. Finlay’s Casebook on the living room TV. Sometimes my mother would let me join her on the sofa to see it. I sat curled in her arm with my toes tucked up in the hem of my brushed nylon nightie. She might have made my father tea and toast for supper and I’d get some too, dipping the buttered barmbrack in my own milky cup.
One January night when I was 10 I heard my father take the early morning call from the hospital telling him my mother had died. I remember he thanked the person on the other end of the line for letting him know. How could he? He went back to bed and I went back to sleep. We didn’t know what else to do.
Other nights, perhaps at 10pm, I would hear my father wind the clock that hung above the telephone table in the hall. The rasp of the key and the steady tock was reassurance that life would go on. I have that clock now but it’s banjaxed. I must get it fixed.
The curtains in our room were orange and our built-in furniture olive green. The walls were white. We slept in an interior design version of the Irish flag.